The Slings and Arrows of Spec Ops: The Line 12

Yager Development’s Spec Ops: The Line has man­aged to become some­thing of a crit­i­cal dar­ling since being released in June, despite rather lack­lus­tre sales. Many reac­tions to the game have spelt out sim­i­lar themes: deriv­a­tive but pass­able game­play, lin­ear­i­ty mas­querad­ing as choice, stock char­ac­ters and… holy crap, what hap­pened there? Suddenly this paint-by-numbers shoot­er gets inter­est­ing as it begins tak­ing its cues from Conrad’s Heart of Darkness and Francis Ford Coppola’s infa­mous film adap­ta­tion Apocalypse Now. Shit, as it were, begins to get real, with descents into mad­ness, player-driven war crimes, American on American war­fare, tor­ture, vio­lence, aggres­sion, hor­ror and an uncan­ny of-this-world-but-out-of-this-world set­ting. The game’s dri­ving force appears to be the cap­ture and manip­u­la­tion of expec­ta­tions, close­ly fol­lowed by the shov­ing of said expec­ta­tions where the sun shineth not.

Or, at least, so I’m told. I haven’t played it. I had a pop at the demo when it came out on PSN and was rel­a­tive­ly unof­fend­ed. I’d read a few bits on the game before­hand and was inter­est­ed to see what would present itself. I par­tic­u­lar­ly remem­ber a piece by Ben Kuchera on Penny Arcade Review and the big deal made of the sandy sur­rounds, espe­cial­ly the oppor­tu­ni­ties for context-specific war­fare using the ruinous envi­ron­ment. Ben’s an expe­ri­enced writer, and when he’s excit­ed about a game, that enthu­si­asm per­me­ates right through his words and into me. If not exact­ly excit­ed, I was cer­tain­ly intrigued. What we got in that demo, Ben and I, was an on-rails heli­copter chase scene in which we, of course, manned the mini­gun. ‘Jesus Christ’, I uttered to myself. I’m not sure what Ben said on his first play. He prob­a­bly just sighed.

It wasn’t a total let down, you under­stand. It was just… same old same old. This felt like a game I’d played a thou­sand times before. Granted, it has some orig­i­nal back­drops, the sand-wrecked Dubai is a gor­geous envi­ron­ment. But here I am zip-lining, cover-shooting, grenade-lobbing my way across it. Regular cannon-fodder ene­mies mixed in with the odd shotgun-wielding brutes? Check. Sniper sec­tions? Check. Oh look, that gen­tle­man over there has an RPG. I bet if I shoot him at just the right moment he’ll fire at the floor tak­ing down a few of his mates… check. Don’t get me wrong, if this demo had Syphon Filter in the title and had come out 10 years ago, this para­graph would have a whole dif­fer­ent out­look. But it didn’t. And so this doesn’t.

Then some­thing hap­pened. Something about the game seemed to have a lit­tle more inten­si­ty than nor­mal. Not in the game­play, but in the back­ground chats, in the cutscenes, in the atmos­phere. The demo con­cludes, (as they all do these days) with a trai­ler­ish, ‘Here’s what you could get if you buy me!’ mon­tage, but this one actu­al­ly piqued my curios­i­ty. The game went into my Buy It If There’s Nothing Else Around file. And then in a shop the other day I picked up Uncharted 3 instead.

Is it fair, then, for me to com­ment fur­ther on Spec Ops? I wouldn’t do so about any other game. If I haven’t played some­thing I’ll say so, and then we’d prob­a­bly aban­don that par­tic­u­lar dis­cus­sion and move on to some­thing more mutu­al­ly enabling. (How’s the weath­er where you are?) Goodness knows that I wouldn’t usu­al­ly sit down and write a cou­ple of thou­sand words for OntGeek on a game I haven’t played! But some­thing else is going on here, some­thing unique.

I‘m not sure Spec Ops: The Line wants to be played.

On the sur­face, The Line looks like a stan­dard military-themed third per­son shoot­er. Underneath, it’s some­thing else entire­ly. - Daniel Golding

Like the good lit­tle aspir­ing games writer that I am, I spend plen­ty of my time read­ing about our mutu­al inter­est. I’ve read a lot about Spec Ops: The Line; you may also have done so. For a while there it got a lit­tle unavoid­able as ‘Spoiler Warning!’-ridden reviews cropped up all over the place, fol­lowed by bemused crit­ics and blog­gers on their Twitter feeds won­der­ing what the hell just hap­pened to them. I think Brendan Keogh may be writ­ing a the­sis on it, for Christ’s sake!  As much as Spec Ops may have passed by the gen­er­al public’s notice, crit­ics have at the very least been inter­est­ed. Here, final­ly, is a game with a mes­sage. And the mes­sage appears to be: Fuck You.

The Line looks at the play­er direct­ly and asks the ques­tion: “What is wrong with a per­son for want­i­ng to play a game like me?”Daniel Golding

Spec Ops: The Line is active­ly involved in turn­ing you against the drive behind games like this… the char­ac­ters’ uncer­tain­ly over what they were doing, their angst, for lack of a bet­ter term, was my own. Arthur Gies

I felt trou­bled as I played. Spec Ops want­ed me to feel trou­bled. That is a mighty strange thing to pay for and to want to keep play­ing…. One thing’s for sure: I feel sick at the idea of play­ing anoth­er shoot­er any time soon Alec Meer

Spec Ops’ nar­ra­tive, in stark con­trast to (or per­haps intrigu­ing com­plic­i­ty with) its gener­ic game­play is built to chal­lenge its play­ers’ com­fort. How many times in your gam­ing life have you shot a man in his face with­out flinch­ing? Hell, I bet you’ve cheered a good head­shot. And here you’ll rain phos­pho­rous down on friend­lies, ene­mies and refugees alike. In Call of Duty you walked into an air­port lounge and opened fire into the inno­cent bod­ies of bystanders. Ok, maybe you didn’t shoot dur­ing No Russian, but you let it hap­pen. Perhaps you popped a lit­tle shot at the ter­ror­ists your CIA oper­a­tive was attempt­ing to infil­trate, but it didn’t work, did it. And you let it con­tin­ue. ‘It was script­ed’, you’re say­ing. ‘I had no choice!’ You left the con­sole on. You let it run. It’s only a game while you’re play­ing.

But what else could I do?’

To be, or not to be, that is the ques­tion:
Whether ‘tis nobler with­in the mind to suf­fer
The Slings and Arrows of out­ra­geous Fortune,
Or to take Arms against a Sea of trou­bles,
And by oppos­ing end them: to die, to sleep…

In the extra­or­di­nar­i­ly famous third solil­o­quy of Hamlet, the Prince of Denmark pon­ders aloud his next move. Shakespeare’s trou­bled young hero is a man who seems in the midst of some mad night­mare, in which bad con­sis­tent­ly turns to worse and worse still. Life, for Hamlet at this point, is a pun­ish­ment wrought upon him for no good rea­son, a vio­lent assault of ‘the slings and arrows of out­ra­geous for­tune’. What to do? How to pro­ceed? Action or pas­siv­i­ty? Persist or desist? Suffer or take arms?

It’s not an uncom­mon dilem­ma. Whether to act or allow things to take their course is a ques­tion that faces us all, on var­i­ous scales, reg­u­lar­ly. For Hamlet, the stakes have been dri­ven as high as they get; he is won­der­ing whether to con­tin­ue liv­ing or remove him­self to ‘that sleep of death, what dreams may come’.

One of the fas­ci­nat­ing fea­tures of this pas­sage is the way Shakespeare con­fig­ures Hamlet’s idea of action and inac­tion, what exact­ly it means to be or to not to be. It’s impor­tant first to con­tex­tu­al­ize what we’re read­ing. While Hamlet is a noto­ri­ous­ly dif­fi­cult play to date in terms of its set­ting, we do know that Shakespeare was writ­ing for a late 16th-century English audi­ence which high­ly val­ued its Christian beliefs, Protestant or Catholic. This is a speech about a man con­tem­plat­ing sui­cide being made direct­ly to an audi­ence who have been brought up to believe sui­cide is a sin, an assault on God’s work, and the coward’s way out. But look again at Hamlet’s words:

Whether ‘tis nobler with­in the mind to suf­fer
The Slings and Arrows of out­ra­geous Fortune,
Or to take Arms against a Sea of trou­bles,
And by oppos­ing end them: to die, to sleep…

For Hamlet, in total oppo­si­tion to a view arguably main­tained to this very day, con­tin­u­ing to live is the act of pas­siv­i­ty. Hamlet rec­og­nizes that life is some­thing thrust upon him, and you and I, push as we might, we’ll never shift its path. In his case, of course, this is par­tic­u­lar­ly true- this is a man trapped in his own Tragedy. Shakespeare is his God and, the hall­marks of tragedy being what they are, he is unlike­ly to be a benev­o­lent Maker. Hamlet’s sui­cide is framed as the active option because only by per­form­ing it could he redi­rect the nar­ra­tive of his own life, only then would the ‘Sea of Troubles’ be opposed and ended. Hamlet is being dragged through a tor­tur­ous nar­ra­tive against his will and against his bet­ter inter­ests.

Sound famil­iar?

In our lives we are able to affect our future through our actions. This changes when we allow our­selves to be placed into a pre-written nar­ra­tive. I’ve writ­ten before on how videogames involve an inhab­i­ta­tion of the player-character: In play­ing, we adopt a hybrid iden­ti­ty, and by doing so we expose our­selves to the fatal­is­tic nature of the lin­ear­i­ty. For all intents and pur­pos­es the devel­op­er is God, she makes the road and we must fol­low it. Spec Ops’ nar­ra­tive power is derived from the catch-22 into which it places the play­er through their engage­ment with the game: we must play to dis­cov­er the mes­sage, but the mes­sage denounces the ease with which we com­mit atroc­i­ties in the name of play. This cycli­cal back-and-forth between play­ing the game and the game’s mean­ing clos­es a trap of respon­si­bil­i­ty. Even the game’s load­ing screens are in on it – ‘This is all your fault’, they begin to say towards the end.

Spec Ops there­fore ques­tions just what it means for us to choose to engage with it. Our assump­tion, based on received wis­dom, is that the active choice with regards to a game is to play it. Oh sure, I’ve turned away from plen­ty of games, per­haps it’s not very good or per­haps it isn’t my cup of tea. Maybe I just wasn’t in the right mood at the right time. But I’m so used to wide scale vio­lence and destruc­tion that it’s never occurred to me to turn off a game because of it, to make it cease. Or per­haps I’m so used to wide scale vio­lence and destruc­tion because it’s never occurred to me to turn it off. Once play­ing, the default set­ting for the game is On; to turn it off would be a demon­stra­tion of pas­siv­i­ty, an insult to the cre­ators’ work. It would be a sin. This cor­re­lates with the received wis­dom Hamlet chal­lenges by reimag­in­ing his sui­cide as an active response to his bur­dens. The dif­fer­ence between him and you and I, of course, is that Hamlet’s life is absolute­ly pre­de­ter­mined. Like us, he might only be able to guess whether he is con­trolled by fate, but while we can’t answer for sure for our­selves, we know that he is. Because of this, Hamlet’s sui­cide would more close­ly resem­ble switch­ing off a game before you are meant to than end­ing your own life. Like Hamlet, then, we must ques­tion whether the truly active mea­sure is to remove one­self from the whole sit­u­a­tion. The answer to, ‘But what else could I do?’ may well be to opt out com­plete­ly.

So, will I play it? I’m not sure. I think active­ly choos­ing to call Spec Ops’s bluff by opt­ing out could be an inter­est­ing way to engage with it. But then, the only rea­son I know that the game car­ries this mean­ing is through read­ing spoil­ers and cri­tiques. In that way, per­haps I’ve already failed to break out of its catch-22 entrap­ment by expos­ing myself to its more provoca­tive and accusato­ry con­ceits. Whatever hap­pens, I’ll let you know.

Jim Ralph

About Jim Ralph

Jim Ralph currently resides in sunny Winchester, England. He'd love to hear from you, personally, with any thoughts on his writing or lucrative job offers.

12 thoughts on “The Slings and Arrows of Spec Ops: The Line

  • Tom Coberly

    Words like “orig­i­nal” and “intrigu­ing” come to mind, but I think what I real­ly want to say is, “Well done.” This piece could also be read in con­junc­tion with Joel Cuthbertson’s post-Batman-shooting essay.

  • Jim Ralph
    Jim Ralph Post author

    Thank you! I think, hav­ing read it with­in a short while of sit­ting down to write this, Joel’s essay will cer­tain­ly have been lurk­ing around my sub­con­scious while this arti­cle for­mu­lat­ed itself. I’ll have to have anoth­er read of his and see how sub­stan­tial the input was.

    Thanks for com­ment­ing!

  • Brendan Keogh

    I think per­haps you (and many, many oth­ers) are mak­ing the mis­take to think that The Line is mak­ing a state­ment when, real­ly, it is ask­ing a ques­tion. Don’t think of it as try­ing to say “This games are bad and you win by not play­ing this games.” Think of it as ask­ing “Hey, you play these videogames a lot and, let’s face it, you real­ly enjoy doing some messed up stuff. Do you think that’s okay?” And then it push­es you and push­es you to just see how far you can go and still think that what you are doing is okay.

    So, for me, it is not about choos­ing not to play mil­i­tary shoot­ers gen­er­al­ly or Spec Ops in spe­cif­ic, but more about accept­ing respon­si­bil­i­ty for the things you do in them when you do choose to play them, per­haps.

  • Jim Ralph
    Jim Ralph Post author

    Thanks for com­ment­ing Brendan. (Incidentally, is it wrong and does it make you uncom­fort­able if some­one shouts ‘Holy shit Brendan Keogh just com­ment­ed on my arti­cle!’ across the room at their girl­friend? If so, that total­ly did­n’t hap­pen).

    I’m not sure, hav­ing not played it to any extent, that I’d be in any posi­tion to accu­rate­ly assess any state­ment Spec Ops might be try­ing to make. Though you do sug­gest that the posi­tion you attribute to me is one being picked up in much of the other writ­ing on this game, so per­haps that impres­sion has fil­tered through me from there. I think what I am try­ing to get at here is how we, as gamers, reply to the ques­tions Spec Ops asks. For you that seems to be to take a more reflec­tive view of your in-game actions. My sug­ges­tion, and it is mere­ly a sug­ges­tion, is that anoth­er appro­pri­ate reply might well be to opt out com­plete­ly. There are oth­ers, of course.

    Is a reply nec­es­sary, you might be think­ing. I think that I think so, if you see what I mean. Perhaps it is the heav­i­ly inter­ac­tive nature of games that makes me feel that way. I also think (hope) that some­thing that comes through in this arti­cle is the amount of infor­ma­tion we’re sub­ject­ed to before ever even pick­ing up a game. I’m sug­gest­ing that, given what we know is com­ing, pick­ing up a shoot­er in the first place is an action for which we need to take respon­si­bil­i­ty.

    • Brendan Keogh

      Hi Jim,

      You are absolute­ly right. It’s a real­ly good point that per­haps I did­n’t real­ly think about when I wrote my first com­ment that, yes, there are peo­ple vol­un­tar­i­ly engag­ing with this game by not engag­ing with it or by cut­ting their engage­ment with it vol­un­tar­i­ly short, and these are things that should total­ly be writ­ten about. It’s a real­ly fas­ci­nat­ing kind of para­dox, real­ly, where usu­al­ly you can’t real­ly say any­thing mean­ing­ful about a game with­out play­ing it, but Spec Ops has to be one of the few games you can mean­ing­ful­ly NOT play. So kudos on attempt­ing that chal­lenge!

      And sorry if my first com­ment was real­ly curt. It was pre-coffee and I was prob­a­bly being too defen­sive against what you right observe is a more gen­er­al trend in writ­ing around the game. I think, per­haps, Spec Ops isn’t a mean­ing­ful expe­ri­ence for *Everyone* so much as real­ly just for peo­ple who real­ly enjoy shoot­ers (like me). People who already despise shoot­ers don’t get any­thing out of Spec Ops, and I feel these peo­ple are writ­ing arti­cles that are kinda miss­ing the point that those that love shoot­ers are get­ting some­thing seri­ous out of this game. But yes. You weren’t doing that and I total­ly jumped the gun, so sorry for that!

      Also, this is a REALLY late reply, so sorry for that too.

      (Oh, and it’s strange­ly flat­ter­ing that any­one could care about a com­ment I leave some­where on the inter­net :p)

  • Tom Dawson
    Tom Dawson

    Interestingly, where you men­tion poten­tial­ly giv­ing up on a game because you dis­like the actions your avatar, there was one occa­sion I’ve actu­al­ly been moved to do that. However, the sit­u­a­tion was com­plete­ly dif­fer­ent to any you’ve described — it was no geno­cide or tor­ture that moved me to turn off a game, but some­thing that dis­turbed me far more.

    In L.A. Noire, our pro­tag­o­nist Detective Cole Phelps is pre­sent­ed as a hero­ic con­trast to his fel­low cops, who are invari­ably sleazy and cor­rupt. He’s a war hero (sorta — the devel­op­er’s attempt to human­ise the rather robot­ic Cole by reveal­ing that his war record is not as ster­ling as first thought), a straight arrow and a fam­i­ly man. And then he cheats on his wife.

    The play­er has no con­trol over this, hap­pen­ing as it does whol­ly in cutscene, but it’s a very shock­ing moment (not least for the rea­son that the fore­shad­owed was vir­tu­al­ly non-existent). Our “hero cop” is just as bent as those the game has been telling us to look down upon, sim­ply in a dif­fer­ent way. This has a much greater effect on me than any of the mur­der scenes I’d inves­ti­gat­ed or the armed sus­pects I’d gunned down, and in fact more than any sim­u­lat­ed geno­cide — whether it be shoot­ing aliens or Russians or Nazis — I’ve par­tic­i­pat­ed in over the years, and I wager that if I played Spec Ops: The Line the emo­tion­al impact of L.A. Noire would still be greater.

    My the­o­ry is that, while the play­er often does all kinds of heinous activ­i­ty in an FPS or other vio­lent game, it’s so far removed from our on expe­ri­ence, so firm­ly in the realm of fic­tion, that we have trou­ble con­sid­er­ing our actions as “real”. If these things were to hap­pen in real­i­ty than sure, they’d be ter­ri­ble, but (unless you’re a sol­dier, pre­sum­ably) that sort of thing is just so alien that the only frame of ref­er­ence we have is the consequence-free video game ver­sion. With Phelps’ douchebag­gery and adul­tery, there is a sig­nif­i­cant­ly greater chance that a play­er can relate, whether as cheater or cheatee; it cer­tain­ly called up my on mem­o­ries of being cheat­ed on, and the loathing I felt towards the per­son who betrayed me was trans­ferred to my avatar. I did­n’t want to play as Cole Phelps any­more because he was a scum­bag in a fash­ion I could relate to, a fash­ion I had expe­ri­enced the pain of first-hand. Mowing down wave after wave of human beings with a machine gun is much eas­i­er to dis­tance the self from emo­tion­al­ly, as such a thing lies entire­ly out­side the realms of my expe­ri­ence and I can eas­i­ly define it in my brain as pure fic­tion; small­er, more intense­ly per­son­al tragedies are hard­er to dis­en­gage from and thus hit hard­er.

    I can see what Spec Ops is say­ing, but I don’t think it real­ly works on the level intend­ed. Yes, the play­er is using their avatar to do hor­ri­ble, cruel and ille­gal things but they are all things which — while they clear­ly exist in the real world — are dis­tant enough from our daily lives that we can dis­miss them. It’s hard to force a “My God, what have I done?!” moment from some­one who does­n’t under­stand what they’ve done on any level other than the aca­d­e­m­ic.

  • Richard Pearsey

    Nice piece. I don’t agree, but I enjoyed your line of thought tremen­dous­ly. The game is intend­ed to subvert/critique the genre not rule it out. We also want­ed to inject greater emo­tion and char­ac­ter devel­op­ment into shoot­ers than have pre­vi­ous­ly been seen. Having said that, I’m a suck­er for Shakespeare and loved your appli­ca­tion of the solil­o­quy to our piece.

  • Jim Ralph
    Jim Ralph Post author

    Thanks Richard, that means an awful lot com­ing straight from the source, as it were. I’m glad you can appre­ci­ate the direc­tion of the arti­cle with­out nec­es­sar­i­ly agree­ing. As with any­thing, I expect there are any num­ber of inter­pre­ta­tions of which this is just one. For that mat­ter, what you may have intend­ed for Spec Ops is equal­ly just one pos­si­ble inter­pre­ta­tion, (though with a fair­ly sub­stan­tial injec­tion of legit­i­ma­cy!)

    Thanks again. I’m heart­ened to see you inter­act­ing with respons­es to Spec Ops.

    • Richard Pearsey

      This kind of thing is fun. And, you are absolute­ly right — once it’s out there, mine or any of the other devs opin­ions are just pos­si­ble inter­pre­ta­tions. Heck, not all of us agree about every­thing. Very pleased to have dis­cov­ered your blog.

  • Doug S.

    There’s a movie that’s a lot like the game you described. It’s called “Funny Games”, and its rea­son for exist­ing is to call out the hor­ror movie audi­ence for enjoy­ing the suf­fer­ing of oth­ers. And, as usual, the TV Tropes Wiki has an entry about this kind of thing.

  • Amanda Lange

    Wow, Doug, that’s actu­al­ly a sur­pris­ing­ly good TV Tropes link (and I gen­er­al­ly don’t find it that use­ful). I imme­di­ate­ly thought of “You dead­beat, mid­night, freak-geek wit­ted torture-porn gore whores–” and Shadow of the Colossus here, but this seems to be more com­mon in video games than I real­ly thought about. All these games that effec­tive­ly get angry at you for con­tin­u­ing to play along with them.

    I’m in the same boat with Spec Ops as the arti­cle. Got it because of the buzz, haven’t cracked it open just yet. But I know I want­ed there to be a sub­ver­sive cri­tique of shoot­ers out there some­where.

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